Giacomo Leopardi (1798-1837), the greatest Italian poet since Dante, loved what is not directly given in life. Born to minor aristocracy in a sleepy backwater of the Italian Marches, Giacomo preferred study in his father's enormous library to the normal pleasures of youth. By 22 he had mastered seven languages, translated the classics, written a treatise on astronomy and composed a long poem in ancient Greek.

His learning outstripped the tutors engaged to prepare him for the priesthood, and indeed that of most scholars. The self-styled 'walking sepulchre' came to despise the consolations of religion, to compose satiric fables, and to periodically fall in love with women who hardly noticed him. When eventually allowed to visit Rome, he was profoundly disappointed, travelling in the years afterwards round the larger cities of Italy as the guest of a wealthy liberal elite who genuinely admired the literary productions but were treated to scornful comment. Leopardi became increasing eccentric in his dress, behaviour and eating habits. Nearly blind at the end, his ill-health exacerbated by excessive study, Leopardi died in Naples of an asthmatic attack.

The Romantic hero, presented with rumbustious humour in Byron's Don Juan, and more cynically in Pushkin's Eugene Onegin, becomes in Leopardi a man fixated on the lost and distant. But if despairing, the poetry was often beautiful and important. Leopardi incorporated words or phrases from earlier poets, but he vitalized his meaning by scrupulous attention to sound and rhythm while employing the simplest of vocabularies. Informed by extended scholarship, the poetry has the restraint and clarity of classical literature, which allowed Leopardi to concentrate on his shadow world of 'solid nothingness'. The cornerstones were remembrance and infinity, and through these Leopardi opened the door to Modernism's divorce from social obligations to a poesie pure that anticipated the Symbolists. His best known works are To Sylvia (an elegy on a peasant girl struck down in the bloom of youth), poems in Operrata Morali (poetic fables exemplifying Leopardi's philosophy of despair) Canti and Pensieri (short meditations in the manner of Pascal).

Though often placed second only to Baudelaire in being responsible for the modern existential consciousness, Leopardi's work has not taken among English speakers— which may be true of Italian poetry generally, outside the moderns: Ungaretti, Montale and Pavese. Leopardi drew on the Bible, Greek tragedy, the Latin poets, Dante, Tasso, Montaigne and the Enlightenment thinkers, but immediately influenced very few. Vittorio Alfieri's (1749-1803) best work was for the stage, and Ugo Foscolo (1778-1827) transplanted a classical perfection of form to a nationalistic setting. Alessandro Manzoni (1785-1873) is better known for his great novel, while Giuseppe Belli (1791-1863) wrote 2200 vivid, not to say racy sonnets in the Roman vernacular. Giosuč Carducci (1835-1907) was a reaction to romantic excess. Giovanni Pascoli (1855-1912) 'wrung the neck of eloquence', and Gabriele d'Annunzio, as much showman as poet, strove for an intoxicating musicality.

Books include De Sanctis/Redfern's History of Italian Literature (1968), J.H. Whitfield's Short History of Italian Literature (1960) and Leopardi's Canti (1962).

Suggestion: Leopardi: Canti and Selection of his Prose J.G. Nichols. Carcanet. 1995.

Several translations of Leopardi have appeared in recent years, but the books are expensive, and the verse conveyed in forms that sometimes do violence to the original. Here is an admirable edition of the complete poems, plus a selection of the prose. The volume is currently out of print, but look on Abebooks, etc.

C. John Holcombe   |  About the Author    | ©     2007 2012 2013 2015.   Material can be freely used for non-commercial purposes if properly referenced.